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The Denver Broncos’ Super Bowl defeat to the Seattle Seahawks in February was anticlimactic and almost comically one-sided, even if quarterback Peyton Manning said he was insulted by the suggestion that it was embarrassing.
But, to their credit, Broncos executive John Elway and the other members of the team’s brain trust didn’t sulk about it and they certainly didn’t stand around idly and simply hope for better next time. They went out and did plenty in free agency in a bid to make the Broncos better equipped, especially on defense, to take the final step this season and win a title.
The first significant clue as to whether that offseason retooling will work could come Sunday in Seattle when the Broncos face the Seahawks in a Super Bowl rematch. It won’t be only about Manning and those around him on the Denver offense attempting to solve the Seattle defense with far more success than they had during the 43-8 loss Feb. 2 in the Meadowlands.
It also will be about seeing, in a relatively high-stakes game and in the most challenging of road environments, whether the Broncos now have a championship-caliber defense of their own.
The Broncos’ free agent moves included signing defensive end DeMarcus Ware, cornerback Aqib Talib and safety T.J. Ward. Ware was a seven-time Pro Bowl selection with the Dallas Cowboys. Talib and Ward were first-time Pro Bowl choices last season, Talib with the New England Patriots and Ward with the Cleveland Browns.
The results of the Broncos’ makeover have been mixed so far. They’re ranked 30th in the league in pass defense and 27th in total defense. But they’re a far more respectable 10th in rush defense and 15th in scoring defense, and they sport a 2-0 record.
Ware, who had 11 or more sacks seven times in nine seasons with the Cowboys, has 1-1/2 sacks through two games this season. That’s a half-sack more than the Broncos’ other renowned pass rusher, outside linebacker Von Miller.
“The moves are only good if Von Miller becomes the Von Miller of old,” former San Francisco 49ers and Washington Redskins front office executive Vinny Cerrato said this week. “If that happens, it makes Ware more effective. Right now he’s more effective than Von Miller. And that shouldn’t be.”
In their triumphs over the Indianapolis Colts and Kansas City Chiefs to open the season, the Broncos followed a pattern of jumping to leads and then holding on at the end. They outscored the Colts and Chiefs, 45-17, in the first half but were outscored, 24-10, in the second half. Playing from ahead and forcing their opponent to go into pass-only, catch-up mode might explain in part why the Broncos are so low in the league rankings in pass defense.
But they probably need better play from a secondary that now includes Talib and Ward. And they need more production from Ware, Miller and those paid to chase opposing quarterbacks, according to Cerrato.
“Talib makes the secondary better,” Cerrato said. “Ward is an upgrade at safety. But the pass rush is the key.”
On offense, the Broncos lost running back Knowshon Moreno in free agency. He signed with the Miami Dolphins but suffered a dislocated elbow last weekend. Denver also watched wide receiver Eric Decker depart for the New York Jets as a free agent after he averaged 86 catches, 1,176 yards and 12 touchdowns per season in his two years with Manning. In his place, the Broncos signed wideout Emmanuel Sanders, formerly of the Pittsburgh Steelers.
“Emmanuel Sanders gives them the speed element that they really didn’t have so much last year,” former Seahawks quarterback Warren Moon said before the season. “I think that helps them and it helps Peyton. They didn’t really have that dimension last year.”
Sanders is off to a good start in Denver, with 14 catches for 185 yards in two games. But Cerrato said he’s taking a wait-and-see approach.
“Is that [the addition of Sanders] an improvement over Decker? I think that’s to be determined,” Cerrato said.
So, too, is the issue of whether the Broncos have done enough to assemble a Super Bowl-winning roster.
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